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The Kobe Bryant Theory Of Inequality, And The NBA's Global Icon Era

Remember when LeBron James' marketing team said they wanted to turn him into a Global Icon? No? Let's go back to 2006 with Sports Business Daily:

LRMR said that its “ultimate goal” is to turn James into a “global icon, building partnerships with global companies,” by the ’08 Beijing Games. James is “mulling taking Mandarin classes in order to speak the language when he arrives in China.”

Now, are you picturing LeBron James taking Mandarin classes, repeating under his breath, "This is the first step to world domination"?

Me too.

But LeBron's not alone in sensing the opportunities for growth on the international market, and today, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein name-checked one of Bron's chief rivals in explaining why it's easier than ever to leverage one's success across not just a country, but the entire world.

Illustrating a much broader point about economic inequality that's emerged in the technological age, Klein calls it the Kobe Bryant Theory of Inequality:

The Internet, television and other forms of mass media and communication make it much easier for one person or firm to serve a national or international audience. To use an easy example, Kobe Bryant can make more money because the Chinese watch his basketball games and pay him to endorse their products (that's not a random example, incidentally).

But saying that the rise in inequality is partly the result of technological change is not the same as saying it's the result of skills-biased technological change. It's not that satellite television has created a need for more basketball players and that need isn't being filled. ... It's that satellite television has made it much, much more lucrative to be one of the world's top basketball players.

It's some heady stuff, and if you'd like to delve into the wormhole of this debate, then starting with this Slate series is probably a good idea. I just got a kick out seeing Kobe's name in the midst of a serious debate about economics and technology.

And Klein makes a good point. Where someone like Michael Jordan didn't become a truly "global" celebrity until the Dream Team in 1992, today, it's easier than ever for NBA Superstars to reach audiences abroad. This is partly because of the NBA's push to become a more global brand, but moreso, it's a credit to technology. The NBA's goal would be laughable without satellite technology and broadband internet.

So, in effect, technology has created an entire generation of would-be "Global Icons."

Here's where it becomes relevant to sports, though: While LeBron worried about learning Mandarin, Kobe was working out. And while LeBron squeezed free agency for every ounce of publicity he could get, Kobe was busy basking in the glow of his second straight championship. So we're left to ask...

Which do you think makes one more famous? Learning mandarin, or winning championships? Who's more successful commercially? The guy that focuses on brand-building, or the guy that's building his game? The guy working to find new ways to promote the product, or the guy obsessed with finding the best way to produce?

In an era of "globalized" branding, these questions are at least a little relevant. And the answers?

Well, it's not the "LeBron James" theory of inequality...